Support aid WorkersNetworking is not just about your career when you work in international aid and development, although building connections with teachers and colleagues can be an important way of getting into this field. It is also about creating a support network that can help you and your colleagues to cope with what is one of the most challenging careers in the world.

The Challenges of Aid Work

The types of issues that are likely to arise in the field include culture shock, stress and acute trauma, while longer-term effects including depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can occur even after you return home. Many elements of life in the field can cause these types of problems. Aid workers have to manage demanding work in a difficult living environment, while having little or no contact with home, and potentially being very isolated, particularly if they are working for a small organization. In addition to this, they are exposed to the poverty and suffering of those they are there to help, and they may be working under the threat of insecurity and violence, which could result in their witnessing or experiencing traumatic incidents.

Recognizing Problems

Recognizing the effects of these types of stresses, in yourself and others, is vital if they are to be handled effectively. Failing to address them can lead to the development or exacerbation of long-term problems, including depression and PTSD, which can be triggered by prolonged exposure to a difficult environment or witnessing a traumatic event, not just by experiencing violence directly. Many aid workers suffer some depression, particularly in the weeks after they return home, but with time and support, these problems can be overcome.
The signs that someone is struggling can include:

  • physical symptoms like tiredness or an inability to relax
  • emotional disturbances, particularly depression and feelings of guilt
  • changes to behavior, such as irritability or the breakdown of relationships
  • disturbed thought patterns, including lack of focus, indecisiveness and extreme self-criticism
  • a spiritual or philosophical crisis, a loss of hope and purpose

If you have noticed any of these types of changes in yourself, or in your colleagues, then it is important to seek help, even if it is just the supportive ear of a friend who can listen to your thoughts and feelings.

Coping Mechanisms

You need a high tolerance to stress and some good coping mechanisms in order to succeed in your work while maintaining your own health and happiness. It is too easy to find yourself struggling or suffering burnout if you cannot find an effective way to cope with the challenges of switching between the field and home. The best way to handle the stress will depend on your own personality and how you have been affected by your experiences, but most people find that one of the most effective coping mechanisms is simply finding an understanding friend or colleague to listen to you. Another important means of dealing with the stress, both at home and in the field, is to find some way of unwinding and taking a break. You need to give yourself time to recover and think about different things, whether it is playing sports, reading a book, or completing the crossword that helps you to cope.
However, there are also some coping mechanisms that can be very harmful, and which can end up exacerbating the effects of the stress and trauma that you have experienced. Aid workers can begin to distance themselves from the people around them, as a protective mechanism to cope with the suffering that they have witnessed and avoid feeling pain and compassion. They may also start to display “black and white” thinking, forgetting about the complexities of the situation and forgetting to see the people around them as people, with all the individuality and complexity that entails. This is particularly true for workers who have entered the field with little training or unrealistic expectations of what they can achieve. Another issue that can arise is that aid workers try to relieve their stress through self-destructive behaviors, which might show just as a neglectful attitude to their own health, or lead to dangerous behaviors such as having unprotected sex, or abusing alcohol and other substances. These are the types of coping strategies that can lead to burnout and depression, and they should be treated as signs that someone may need some extra help. Support from a therapist who has experience helping aid workers, or a program that can provide addiction support for alcoholism or substance abuse, along with treatment for psychological trauma or personality disorders may be necessary.

Finding Support in the Field and at Home

Although you may at times need extra help, and various support structures may be available in your organization, the best way to prepare for the types of issues that you may encounter in a career in international aid and development is to build up your own support network, including friends, family, and, most importantly, colleagues who work in the same field. A peer network can give you someone to talk to, outside of your own organization, who can relate to your experiences and offer helpful advice, including practical tips as well as emotional support. Knowing that there is someone you can talk to who has gone through similar experiences can be very helpful, and it can also ensure that there is someone there who may be able to recognize when you are struggling, and for whom you can do the same.
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